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NEW ACM CHIEF DAMON WHITESIDE SPEAKS

Interview by Todd Hensley

Over the course of his 30 years in the biz, Academy of Country Music CEO Damon Whiteside has worked in virtually every corner—including a 16-year stint at The Walt Disney Company and Walt Disney Records that exposed him to music and film marketing, retail, licensing, theme parks and more. He broadened his horizons still further as an artist manager and the head of his own marketing agency. Relocating to Nashville, he landed at the Country Music Association, where he was mentored by Sarah Trahern and rose to the post of Chief Marketing Officer; he counts his role in CMA’s 50th anniversary celebration as a career highlight. Damon describes his personal brand as “Hollywood meets Nashville,” but after a stultifying conversation with us, he’s realized there are parts of Hollywood one should never enter.

What was the catalyst that made you want to make a move now?
A major milestone for me was working hand in hand with Ken Burns and his team on the launch of the Country Music series. It was an incredible honor and privilege to be part of that and learn even more about the history of country and its legacy. That pivotal point really led me to the ACM; when the opportunity presented itself, I immediately was interested, because I’d grown to love, admire and respect the country-music industry even more.

I’m very passionate about growing country and changing perceptions about it, especially in L.A., New York and some of the other tastemaker markets, and I felt like this was a good opportunity to do it. The Academy, being based in Los Angeles, has a history of working to build a bridge with the film-and-television community here. This organization has been around for 56 years, and with the media landscape changing so much, we have to determine what its future is. For me, this is a way to leave a mark on the country-music industry and ensure that this organization has a long life ahead of it—and to properly support the industry.

How can history and legacy work into the future of the Academy?
The roots really started on the West Coast, to support the artists that were homegrown here; a lot of the artists were also film celebrities when the country-western films were popular. So it was formed out here for a specific purpose—to connect with film and television. That’s still a valid goal for the organization—it remains as important today as it was when it was formed. However, the landscape and the genre have changed. We’re obviously not just about West Coast artists anymore; we embrace the entire country-music industry. We can continue to shape perceptions about country and identify new opportunities in the mainstream entertainment business. We’re uniquely positioned to be able to do that.

Do you think having been on the record side in the past is a benefit for you?
Huge. I’ve been lucky enough to not only be a label employee and ultimately an executive, but also to work in music retail and as an artist manager. I’ve worked at virtually every level of the business, including the talent, publishing and legal sides. Having that breadth of experience—in an organization like this, where our membership consists of all these different areas—I understand those businesses and can identify ways we can support them.

You have to work in those areas to really get it. You sign a new artist as a manager who doesn’t have a label or publishing deal, and no budget. You’re building it from the ground up. You are the publisher, songplugger, A&R, publicist. You can’t learn that just by reading about it. I’m eager to dive into this and really start to identify some specific plans to support all areas of the business.


What was your mission for your first few months in the job?
I definitely have a vision. I was focused coming in. The board of directors, the search committee, including the board officers, made it very clear what the challenges and opportunities were and where they see the organization going. There wasn’t a lot of confusion when I came in, having to figure out what my focus would be and what needed to be done

Number one: it’s television—this awards show that’s coming up on April 5—ensuring the show gets booked and that we put a great campaign behind it. We’re working closely with CBS and dick clark productions to leverage everyone’s strengths and make sure it’s stellar. Traditionally, we’ve had really strong ratings on the ACM Awards; I hope to continue that. Also, navigating digital rights is a critical piece.

I want to strengthen the relationship with the board and ensure there’s transparency. I’m focused on mentoring the staff—they’ve gone through a lot of transition. We have a very talented, passionate, hardworking staff here. And then ultimately, it’s our industry and our membership; how do we strengthen that? How do we bring value to the membership? How do we show the relevance of the Academy and what we do and how we’re bringing value? Expanding ACM Lifting Lives, which is dedicated to improving lives with a focus on mental and physical health. To find new ways to raise awareness and funds through our Party for a Cause events, strategic sponsor relationships and support from our artists and industry. For this year, those are the areas that I’m laser-focused on.

Thoughts on year two and beyond?
I’d say looking toward the future of the organization and keeping it prosperous in this fragmented media landscape. We used to have multiple TV shows. We still do ACM Honors, in addition to the ACM Awards show. Honors pays tribute not only to artists, but songwriters and professionals in the industry. However, it’s not a TV special anymore. So, what’s our next show? Can we bring Honors back? How can we expand and create other TV ideas? What does our TV footprint look like, and what does our digital footprint look like? I want to look at ways of engaging fans, helping with artist and music discovery and overall just driving consumption for the industry. And TV is a driver for that, in addition to digital. We must grow our digital platforms to engage fans on a daily basis. It’s an opportunity for us to develop new content concepts and connect the artists with the fanbase.

Digital rights are a major concern with the rights holders.
We are still in discussion with CBS on how to best utilize the digital space to help promote the show, but also during and after the show. We were able to bring our label community together and have a discussion about the importance of the show and about the Academy in the long term as a trade organization. We can’t afford to let this show waver in the ratings or anything that might jeopardize the show or ACM in the long run. That said, the labels are going to support the show, which truly illustrates the spirit of our Country community. We’re booking a show that will take place on April 5, one way or the other. We hope to figure out a good strategic use of performance clips; we’re just not sure yet what that strategy is going to look like.


Where do things stand with the show?
We just announced Keith Urban as host. RAC Clark is an incredible, creative producer with strong industry relationships. I’m really privileged to get to work alongside him. We have a lot of exciting ideas on the table, several of which could be very buzzworthy—let’s call them “ACM moments.” We’re really focused on supporting the next generation while maintaining focus on our heritage and the legendary artists that fans love. We also hope to build a bridge to the mainstream via great collabs with other genres, which is always fun to see.


The ACM Awards have always been considered the fun show. Is that by design?
We’ve had a tradition of being in Las Vegas, and we’ll be there again this year. We’re country music’s party of the year, but at the heart of it, it’s still about celebrating greatness. All of our awards are voted on by the industry, as other awards shows are. Having the Vegas element, our show’s a bit more casual, and the artists enjoy it. They can be a little bit more out of the box and can take some more risks in terms of collaborations and so forth.

You were at the CMAs for six years. What are the key differences between the CMAs and the ACMs as organizations?
There are more similarities than differences. We both want to grow the country-music business and support the industry; we both do major awards shows. We both have boards of directors that come from the country-music industry. In some cases we have similar board members. Our membership, in general, has much crossover.

It shows the strength of country that it can sustain two trade organizations. And no other genre of music has two dedicated, prime-time TV awards shows. As far as differences go, we’re a bit more focused on the L.A. media marketplace. Clearly the L.A. location is a differentiator. We do some unique collaborations on the show that position us a bit differently. But the two organizations being healthy is a good thing for the industry. That’s why it’s not a competition; we can complement each other.

Say a bit about the voting process.
With less than six weeks on the job, there are a lot of the nuances that I’m learning and getting into. That said, we have a dedicated team here for the awards-voting process who take it very, very seriously. None of our awards are fan-voted. They’re all industry-voted from our membership, which in this past year has gone through a major vetting to ensure compliance and that our members are actually qualified to be members.

It’s three rounds of voting, all completely confidential. We use Deloitte as our third-party auditor for the voting process. Nobody finds out about the ballots in advance. It’s highly confidential and well supervised. We wrapped the second ballot, which determined the nominations. In the past, the second-ballot results have been shared in advance with our board, just a little bit before the final ballot launched. And that was one thing that we did change this year; there’s no reason anyone needs to know results prior to a ballot being available to the voting members in order to preserve and maintain the integrity of our awards.

 

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